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My Music Teacher Said I Couldn’t Play Because I’m Blind. So My Classmates Rebelled.

As a middle schooler, I rarely noticed or thought about my blindness.

I happily dashed from school to sleepovers to choir practice, leaving my cane at home and holding fast to my friends’ hands whenever roadblocks threatened to impede my progress. The angsty gloom and doom which typically clouds those tweenage years flew right over my head. Nevertheless, when the time came for me to attend chorus camp — a mandatory, ten-day retreat with 80 middle and high school students I didn’t know — I was terrified.

To my surprise, the first few days of camp passed with relative ease. In between choral rehearsals, campfires and talent shows, white-water rafting and swimming, and lessons in voice, dance and African
drumming, I daydreamed about our upcoming instruction in handbells and chimes, a skill I’d been dying to learn all my life.

We were told not to wear tank tops to handbell class, as the instruments were muted by pressing them against the shoulder. After changing clothes, I and the other first altos filed into class. The second sopranos were finishing a run-through of their piece, and the moment the crystalline music swirled into my ears, I was enchanted. The round sweetness of the notes, with their lilting, somehow liquid shine, reminded me of cotton candy — of that singular, sugar-spun giddiness the first fluffy bite always evoked in me. My throat tended to ache when I heard a song I desperately wanted to sing. My hands tingled with a wild eagerness to become a part of that sound.

The instructor directed my group to choose bells and to read the accompanying sheet music, which would have our bell’s note highlighted. One of the older girls, who was well-versed in music theory, guided me behind the table, carefully passed me my bell and opened her own music alongside mine.

“I’ll tap your hand a beat before your note comes in,” she told me.

Abruptly, the instructor abandoned her lecture and circled the table, drawing me aside.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate for Caitlin to participate in this. She’s not able to sight-read; if she makes a
mistake, it’s going to throw off the song. And the bells are very expensive… she might drop one or play it improperly.”

Now, with 24 years and plenty of self-advocacy skills under my belt, I can think of many things I should have said, many things I would have no problem saying today, either on behalf of myself or the
children I teach.

“It’s illegal for you to exclude a student with a disability from any activity.”

“We already figured out a solution to the accessibility problem, no thanks to you.”

“I’m no more likely to make a mistake or misuse an instrument than any other student.”

“This is a learning experience, and no one plays perfectly on the first try.”

But I was only 12 years old. Never in my life had an adult told me I couldn’t do something. Never before had anyone intimated that I was incapable of doing something. My hurt and disbelief manifested in stunned silence. The other students argued, loudly, on my behalf. Leah, a voice teacher whom I did not yet know well, objected furiously. I came out of my own shock enough to promise that I would pay attention and do my best. But the handbell instructor remained unmoved. I could sit and listen, but I would not play.

I remember the protective conviction I felt in Leah’s fingers as she took my hand and hustled me out of the classroom. Behind us, just out of my reach, the handbells sparkled into life. They sounded the way I
imagined the color silver must look. Leah caught my tears on her fingertips and hugged me tightly. She
guided me to the snack bar, bought me a scoop of chocolate ice cream and promised I would be allowed to play. I was permitted to join the handbell class on the final day of class, when the instructor grudgingly admitted that my “deficits” would be less likely to affect the quality of the performance. But by that point, I was tense, anxious, on edge. The handbells lost their cotton-candy clarity as I concentrated fiercely on not making a single mistake, on doing everything I could to prove the teacher wrong.

Camp was coming to a close, and the first altos, particularly the senior girls, had officially taken me under their wing. To them, what had happened in handbell class — and what little had been done to remedy it –was unacceptable. And unbeknownst to me, they had a plan all their own.

On the night of our final concert, each of the senior first altos wore the skimpiest tank top she owned. As the girls ambled past me, in no hurry to change their clothes at the dorm, one of them squeezed my shoulder and whispered, “Maybe this little delay will give her time to think about what she did.”



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